Resisting Censorship: Digital Activism, Platform Algorithms, and Gendered Imagination - SOAS China Institute

//Resisting Censorship: Digital Activism, Platform Algorithms, and Gendered Imagination

Resisting Censorship: Digital Activism, Platform Algorithms, and Gendered Imagination

Zhu Ling

By Chi Zhang and Ming Zhang | 14 March 2024

On December 22, 2023, Zhu Ling, a former student at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, passed away following a near three-decade struggle against thallium poisoning. The suspect has allegedly escaped legal responsibility due to her family’s connections with high-ranking officials and Zhu’s passing sparked renewed public fury over the perceived absence of justice. Chinese online activists have since launched a campaign which demonstrates their increasingly innovative and sophisticated strategy to fight against official censorship. 


In late 1994, Zhu a chemistry student at Tsinghua was found to be poisoned with the highly toxic chemical thallium.  It left her brain damaged, paralysed and almost blind. The suspect was her classmate and roommate, Sun Wei, who was investigated but not charged due to a lack of evidence.


The case garnered extensive media coverage in the Chinese official, and semi-official outlets, such as China News Weekly, and the Beijing News. Social media Weibo also contributed to the widespread public attention to this topic. On the 23rd, the day after she died, the hashtag #ZhuLingPassingAway held the top spot in Weibo’s trending topics for 25.9 hours.


The commemoration of Zhu escalated into broader outrage over the ability of the powerful to evade legal accountability.  Chinese netizens’ anger culminated in a frenzy of online searches targeting Sun, including her photos, address and family connections.


Upon discovering Sun’s residence in Australia,  some Chinese internet users resurrected a 2013 petition (at the time lobbying the White House in the US) and launched a new petition on 26 December to pressure the Australian government to investigate and deport Sun.  They also took to Chinese social media platforms Weibo and instagram-like Xiaohongshu to seek support for the petition.


At this point, the mobilization of netizens in a democratic country caught the attention of the Chinese authorities. After some official, semi-official and commercial media outlets such as Southern Metropolis Daily, Sina News and NetEase News reported the petition, the authorities started censoring public discussion of the topic. Since the petition website was inaccessible in China, online activists began to adjust their tactics by appealing to the overseas Chinese diaspora for support in the quest for justice.


Initially, the online activists’ objectives appeared to be to maintain public attention on the Zhu Ling case and to encourage participation in the petition. The hope was that public sentiments would compel the authorities to disclose more information, including the transcripts from the police interrogations of Sun Wei conducted in 1997. During this phase, the circulation of Sun’s photos was limited on the Internet, due to the absence of authoritative media sources that could verify their authenticity.


However, after the digital activism caught the attention of the Australian media and Sun’s  personal details had been disclosed, the focus of campaign shifted from seeking justice to  exposing Sun as a murder suspect and to hold her accountable.


As an image-centric social media platform, Xiaohongshu adeptly met the evolving demands of netizens seeking to expose Sun’s photographs widely. Consequently, Xiaohongshu replaced the predominantly text-based Weibo to become the primary platform of the campaign during this phase. However, posts featuring Sun’s photographs were quickly deleted and subjected to censorship on Xiaohongshu on the grounds of privacy infringement. To sustain the campaigns, digital activists implemented mosaic processing on Sun’s photographs, allowing her images to remain identifiable while adhering to privacy regulations.


The netizens actively engaged in this digital movement were largely female, which is aligned with the gender profile of Xiaohongshu’s primary user base. With over 90% of its users being women aged between 18 and 34, Xiaohongshu is known as a female-focused social media platform. This not only facilitated a smooth transition for these women as they turned to Xiaohongshu to continue their activities but also empowered them to leverage the platform’s distinctive features and algorithmic mechanisms to amplify the impact of their activism. According to the Qian-Gua Database’s 2022 report, the top seven fields of interest among Xiaohongshu users were beauty, food, motherhood and childcare, home furnishings, fashion and lifestyle, pets, and fitness. Leveraging Xiaohongshu‘s algorithm, which favors these aspects, many users strategically included hashtags such as #AustralianBeautyOutfit, #BabyFood, #MigrateToAustralia, and #LifeInAustralia in their posts disseminating Sun’s photos. Some users employed AI technology to produce various images depicting the potential trajectory of Zhu’s life had she not fallen victim to poisoning. These AI-generated images portray Zhu in sportswear engaging in sports, in traditional Hanfu attire with a gentle smile, and in professional suits with a confident look. In doing so, these visually captivating posts not only enable the activists to circumvent the platform’s censorship but also serve as a strategy for breaking through filter bubbles to reach users who may not have been actively searching for it previously.


As the discussion regained traction, semi-official Southern Metropolis Daily followed up, emphasizing that the case had now garnered international recognition. Netizens, increasingly frustrated with ongoing censorship, have been rallying on social media platforms to inundate the comment sections of the Spring Festival Gala with this topic. The battle between censorship and the determination of the public to maintain the momentum of this topic continues and its direction and impact remains to be seen.

Chi Zhang is an associate lecturer at the University of St Andrews, and an associate member of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. She has published in the journals such as the Journal of Contemporary China, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Politics and Religion and Asian Security. She is the editor of Human Security in China: A Post-Pandemic State and the author of Legitimacy of China’s Counter-Terrorism Approach: The Mass Line Ethos.


Ming Zhang is a lecturer at the Wenzhou University of Technology.  She received her PhD in media and communication at Bournemouth University. She specialises in the intersections of feminist media studies, fandom studies, and transcultural communication. Her current research interest includes women’s creativity in digital cultures, digital narratives of gender-specific health issues, and the empowering agency of youth grassroots practices. Her previous work can be found in Celebrity Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Communication, Culture & Critique, and International Feminist Journal of Politics, and Democratization.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.